There is a fascinating story in the Catholic Herald which you should all be looking at.
Fighting for Christendom with oranges and lemons
The Battle of Lepanto ended with scenes of surreal horror, discovers John Hinton
26 September 2008
A detail from Paolo Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto (1572)
Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley, Faber and Faber £20
It is a fair bet that Admiral Jacky Fisher, who ruled the serenely powerful British Mediterranean Fleet from Malta aboard his battleship Renown in 1900, must have pondered about a time when the whole of the Med was threshing with the great conflict between Christendom and Islam.
It was to resume in a sense with Churchill’s ill-fated plan to force a second front up the Dardenelles and bombard Istanbul with Jacky’s greatest battleship, the Queen Elizabeth, and others.
But Winston’s great First Sea Lord, and architect of the great dreadnought fleet which had its victory at Jutland, hated the plan – and sensationally resigned.
Back in 1453 the greatest jewel in Christendom, Constantinople, had fallen to the soldiers of Allah in the form of the Ottoman Turks under their fanatical ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. Having charted this period when Islamic imperialism reached its zenith, author Roger Crowley now continues the momentous and bloody story in Empires of the Sea.
During most of the 16th century, Europe was threatened by Islam on every side. The flower of Hungarian chivalry was destroyed at Mohacs, and Vienna besieged. The proud Knights of St John were finally driven from their fortress island of Rhodes – from whose walls they could see the threatening cliffs of Turkey – after an endless siege in which every weapon was used, from cannon bombardments, to starvation and night raids – and fell back on Malta.
Barbary pirates in scores of galleys and corsairs from Tunis and Algiers raided throughout the Mediterranean with virtual impunity, and even carried off "white slaves" from the villages of Cornwall and Ireland. The Knights of St John were themselves also ruthless slavers. But the Islamic raiders made sure to vandalise any Christian churches, symbols or ornaments they found in their path.
The Venetians, the arch-conservative "Swiss bankers" of the age, were interested only in neutrality and gold, even when St Mark’s basin was blockaded. And the rest of Christendom squabbled hopelessly among themselves – Valois against Hapsburg, Catholic against Protestant – and failed to rally together.
In 1543, in fact, the treacherous French collaborated with the Turks to sack Nice, then a Hapsburg possession.
The great contest was fought over a huge front, from Istanbul to the Gates of Gibraltar, and featured the kind of characters you might not necessarily like to meet: Barbarossa, the pirate; the risk-taking Emperor Charles V; the Knights of St John, last survivors of the Crusades, and the brilliant Christian admiral Don Juan of Austria. Its brutal climax came in a six-year period, 1565 to 1571, including the siege of Malta itself, the battle for Cyprus and the last-ditch defence of Lepanto – one of the single most shocking days in naval and world history.
It is on these thrilling set pieces that Crowley largely concentrates. The Siege of Malta in 1565 (some 600 Knights of St John versus an Ottoman army of around 30,000) was arguably the single most heroic siege in history, and full justice is done to the relentless drama of those four scorching summer months, when the roar of Turkish cannon could be heard in Sicily, 120 miles away, and even Protestant England prayed for the salvation of Malta.
The European powers were puny and reluctant over actually coming to help – even though they knew that, should Malta fall to the Turks, Suleiman would then be Lord of the western Mediterranean as well as the east. The knights and their gallant Maltese auxiliaries fought on alone, with unimaginable bravery, with all "the visceral brutality of the Homeric bronze age".
The cruelty and valour – fighting madness – were awful and impressive. Here is Jean de la Valette, head of the Order of St John, refusing to give one inch of ground; the Spanish knight, Captain Miranda, wounded and unable to stand, hauled himself into a chair and fought on, sword in hand. Here is an Italian traitor, "tied to a horse’s tail and beaten to death by children with sticks".
When the outlying fortress of St Elmo finally fell, the Turks mutilated the last survivors and floated them across to St Angelo nailed to wooden crosses, a "gruesome flotsam". La Valette’s instant riposte: execute all his Turkish prisoners and fire their severed heads back over into the Ottoman camp.
Such granite resolution eventually wore down the Ottoman army, even the incomparable janissaries in their ostrich-feather shakos, advancing on the Walls of St Angelo time after time, chanting verses from the Koran.
Unlike Rhodes, which eventually gave in, Malta stood firm and the Turks eventually sailed home.
Some may see comparisons in our own time. In World War Two Malta was besieged from the air by German and Italian bombers; the island’s only defence in the early days: three frail Gloucester Gladiator biplanes called Faith, Hope and Charity flown by RAF pilots who, once reinforced by Spitfires, brought the blitz to an end and secured, once more, the safety of the island.
The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was the largest naval engagement until Jutland in 1916 and this time a shattering defeat for the Ottoman Empire, now ruled by Suleiman’s son, the unprepossessing Selim the Sot.
With a novelist’s eye for vivid scene-painting Crowley tells all: towards the end of the battle, in a scene of surreal horror, both Christians and Turks were running so short of missiles that they started throwing oranges and lemons at each other amid exhausted, hysterical laughter, adrift in a sea jammed solid with corpses. Forty thousand men died in four hours. Not until Loos in 1916 would this rate of slaughter be surpassed. But once more, Christendom was saved.